We first spotted Rail Yard Studios at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in New York. Founded by Robert Hendrick and his father Jim, the company creates one-of-a-kind custom furniture from historical, century-old railroad steel and hardwood timbers. Handmade in America from 100% American materials, every piece is a uniquely created work of art – individually numbered and cataloged. We caught up with Robert to find out more about him and his fascinating creations.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself & your background?
RH. Nashville is where I grew up, but after living and travelling in Australia and Europe, it is the last place I thought I would ultimately wind up. Still it’s a nice place to live, work and raise a family and I’m proud to be from here. I have degrees in Industrial Design from Auburn University and The Ohio State University. After college, an interest in technology led me into several hi-tech and health care-related businesses before I ultimately wound up purchasing a railroad construction company. I still work in healthcare technology in addition to the railroad businesses. I’m also an avid cyclist. We lead a busy life, but my wife Sally and my three daughters, Zoe, Kate and Annie are very supportive.
How did you first become interested in design?
RH. Design was a natural outlet. I went to college as a backup for the poorly laid plans of becoming a professional musician. Fine art was not my strength, and I had to have a major in college after deciding engineering was not the thing for me. Industrial Design afforded me the opportunity to scratch the itch for both the technical and artistic. I have always had a passion for the creative side of things. My kids love to flip through the comic books I wrote and illustrated when I was their age. Beyond that, I learned to build things out of reclaimed materials at the foot of the ladder helping my father on projects. I blame him for instilling in me that desire to design and build things. As payback, he helps me out today in the studio.
What was it that inspired you to purchase a railroad contracting company?
RH. After spending a few years in Europe, I developed an appreciation for the efficiency and convenience of rail. That fuelled my interest when I was presented with an opportunity to purchase the company in 2001. After several stints with technology companies, it was a welcome change to have the opportunity to work with my hands on something more tangible.
How did this lead to you producing a range of furniture made from rails?
RH. Preserving the history behind the rails that carried names like CARNEGIE, BETHLEHEM and TENNESSEE, and dates from 1899 and the early 1900s, sparked the initial idea. The idea of creating something using sustainable materials drove it a bit further. But the final catalyst was the recession. It slowed everything down including our railroad contracting work. The crews needed something to do in between jobs, and so we started in on this project as a way to keep them busy, fulfill an appreciation for sustainability and appease my creative ideas that I had been suppressing for five years.
Where do you source all the materials that you use in the fabrication of your furniture?
RH. Our materials are generally sourced in the southeastern U.S. We own a railroad construction and maintenance business and it is through that business that we have access to century-old steel rail from across the country. The wood ties are sourced through our suppliers as rejects. As imperfect timbers, they are never treated with the various chemicals, such as creosote, and they also possess incredible natural features like knots and barkseams that we integrate into our designs.
Can you please describe the process you go through to make your furniture?
RH. We scream, we cry, we strain under the weight of the materials and then we take out all of our frustrations by pounding the spikes into them. Oh wait – you’re serious.
First, we sketch out our ideas, and we may build a scale model of the piece we plan to fabricate. We plan the build process on white boards and scratch on scrap paper as we go along, sometimes making design changes in the middle of a build. Once we have a plan we’re satisfied with, we select timbers. Some features like knots and barkseams work better in some designs, while other designs are more forgiving and will allow us to use bowed or heavily checked (split) timbers. And that’s when the screaming and lifting really starts.
Which of your products would you say are the most popular and why?
RH. Our wine racks have been some of the most popular. We’ve had requests for those from around the globe. Of the furniture, the pieces that have ballast (granite gravel) in them like the Sleepers Coffee Table and the Ballast Deck Desk have been most popular. Those pieces look as if the entire rail bed was just plucked up and placed in someone’s office or living room. They are the most literal translations of our materials and have been the most popular – enough so that we’ve gone to the trouble to patent them.
What is it that people like most about your products?
RH. When someone stops and stares at one of our pieces, we have to ask “What made you stop and look?” because we get so many different answers. The tie to the railroad and the history behind the rails is the most common, but many people simply love the industrial chic style or the sustainable aspect of what we do. Others like the composition of steel and wood and sometimes stone. The most humbling for me is when someone stops just because they like the simplicity of the design and only later do they realize that the pieces are made from railroad materials.
What kind of interiors are your products most suited to?
RH. They are very versatile. We have them in modern lofts and 1920’s bungalows sitting atop oriental rugs, as well as in offices and log cabins. They can be modern and industrial or casual and folksy – it’s all in the eye of the beholder. For instance, we just shipped a coffee table and two conference tables to a company in San Francisco for their corporate office and recently delivered a coffee table to one of the founders of Tumblr for his New York home.
Do you have any plans to introduce any new product lines to your range?
RH. We constantly are looking at new products and adding new things. We started with big pieces like desks and coffee tables and have worked our way down to wine racks and end tables. We’d like to make some even smaller pieces and have developed designs for them, but producing smaller pieces presents challenges… like how to be cost-effective and how to accommodate the variability in our materials. Since the timbers are rejects, they vary dramatically by 1-2” in some cases in size and they can even be twisted or uneven. The rails are worn from 100 years or more of use, so they are not uniform either. That becomes increasingly challenging for us as we move into smaller and smaller product, but we’re learning to overcome those issues and embrace the uniqueness of our product.
Thank you Robert for giving Freshome readers an insight into your company and the unique products that you create. We think these products are absolutely charming and we love the sustainability element to them. Do you agree? We would love to hear your thoughts so please leave your comments below.